While most eyes at E3 2013 are on the new Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One consoles, it was only one year ago that PC gaming took center stage. It was at E3 2012 that the current Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles were looking more than tired, and many of the best games on display, from XCOM to Metro: Last Light, presented themselves best on high-powered PC hardware.
In 2013, despite the massive marketing and engineering effort that is going to the new living room consoles, no one expects even the PS4 or XB1 to be able to match the overall graphics muscle of the just-released new hardware that will be powering the best high-end gaming PCs.
PC games get a boost from new Intel and Nvidia hardware
First, you have Intel's new "Haswell" chips, which is the code-name for the fourth-generation Core i-series of CPUs. That the higher-end quad-core versions of these chips are hitting just a week before E3 is excellent timing for PC gaming, and we're already seeing new Core i7 CPUs in gaming systems from Razer, Falcon Northwest, and others.
In our initial benchmark tests, the new PC hardware performs superbly, and we've also seen some excellent battery life scores for mobile Haswell systems, which could mean more and better gaming laptops in the near future.
Also helping the gaming PC maintain the momentum it's had for the past year is a new generation of graphics cards from Nvidia. On the desktop side, that's the GTX 770 and 780, both just starting to hit shipping PCs now (the single GTX 780 card in the Falcon Northwest Fragbox we used to test Haswell performance ran BioShock Infinite -- at 1,920x1,080 with very high settings -- at 110.81 frames per second). The also-new mobile versions are the 770M, 780M, 765M (as found in the Haswell-powered Razer Blade 14), and 760M.
Those new hardware upgrades were all announced just prior to E3 2013, but at the show, we may see new hardware from Alienware as the Dell-owned gaming brand always has a presence at the show, as well as the final shipping version of the Nvidia Shield gaming handheld (briefly spotted at Computex), which is an Android gaming device that can also stream PC games from a gaming computer on the same Wi-Fi network.
Will the Steambox ever arrive?
Another big PC gaming question mark at E3 2013 comes from Steam -- and no, it's not "When is Half-Life 2: Episode 3 coming out?" For some time now, there has been much speculation that the game maker and PC game distributor/publisher will release a living room PC, informally dubbed the Steambox.
The concept is that Steam is tired of relying on traditional PC makers to provide gaming hardware that's as reliable and easy to use as a console -- and that also gives PC game makers access to the big screens of living room TVs. Frankly, games such as Dragon Age, XCOM, and BioShock Infinite are all much better experiences on a high-end gaming PC than a game console. Steam is already part of the way there with its built-in Big-Picture mode, designed for 10-foot viewing. Will there be an actual Steambox at E3? Doubtful, but it would be a great way to steal some of the thunder back from the Sony and Microsoft consoles.
Few big-budget PC exclusives
As for PC games themselves, there are not a lot of PC-centric games on everyone's E3 watch list. The military simulator Arma 3 comes to mind, as does The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMO spinoff of the game series that gave us Skyrim and Oblivion. Some of the biggest cross-platform games will also be coming to PC, and it's very likely they'll be demoed at their high-res best via PC versions of Watch Dogs, Battlefield 4, and The Witcher 3.
Keep an eye on all our E3 2013 coverage here.